He was a brooding, intense and honest young man who had been in my life for two years, participating in various performances and hanging out at my place with his friends. He had held starring roles in plays, outreach events, and several different sports, bringing home all-European MVP trophies twice. He was loved and respected by his peers, a natural leader and a surprising source of wise counsel…
In the years he had spent at Black Forest Academy, his parents had never attended any of his games or performances. They’d missed some of the biggest moments in his life…and they lived less than five hours away. I’m sure they were good missionaries committed to their work, but their ministry had robbed them not only of being witnesses to their son’s crowning achievements, but also of the ability to model for him what godly parenthood should be.
Two days after he graduated, they put their son on a plane, alone, with two suitcases and a guitar, headed for a college campus where he knew no one and would work for the summer. The calls to my apartment started coming within hours of his arrival. He had no sheets or towels. The cafeteria was closed for the summer and he didn’t know where to go to find food. He didn’t know how to open a bank account. He didn’t know how to get a driver’s license. He was lost and…utterly alone. And I, a single missionary teacher, was left to try to help the fragile-strong young man an ocean away through some of the worst weeks of his life, while his parents carried on with their ministry.
There are other stories—too many to tell here. Heart-breaking stories of parents who hesitated to attend a child’s graduation because there’s an open-house at the church they lead. Parents who let their children go through a bitter winter without a coat during their first year of college because they’re too busy saving souls in Croatia to ask their kids if they have boots and clothing for subzero weather. Parents who write books and sermons as if their lives depended on it, but are never home to read Dr. Seuss to their children at night…
It’s called neglect. Plain and simple. The reasoning may be rooted in selfless purpose and missionary zeal, but it results too often in relational and spiritual devastation. The lie (#6) that “My ministry is more important than you are,” whether stated or implied, may be the single most traumatizing factor in an MK’s life.
Yes, neglect is a factor in non-ministry families too. With missionaries, though, it’s committed in the name of God, giving children already destabilized by countless moves and losses one more reason to distrust and dislike the message their parents preach. How does it happen? How do good people become so absent from their children’s lives? The reasons for the neglect, ultimately, don’t matter. If your child is away from you and you haven’t communicated in over a week, there really are no excuses. Particularly in the age of Skype, Facebook, email, and cell phones. There is no explanation a parent can give that will undo the sting of that kind of neglect.
The feeling of neglect is sometimes exacerbated by the boarding school experience. Some of my students have actually stated that they had to go away to school so their parents could focus on church-planting without the “distractions” of family. Even some missions until recently had policies that elementary-aged kids should be sent to boarding schools in order for the parents to invest all their energy in language learning. What is a 6-year old boy supposed to conclude when that concept is explained to him? How is a little girl going to feel about God as she watches her parents drive off to the airport, leaving her in a dorm where she doesn’t want to be, because God told her parents that they needed to concentrate on His work?
(I’ll address the topic of boarding schools in a future post. It’s a complex one. Suffice it to say, for now, that boarding schools are not a healthy choice for some young people and their families. But…they’re practically the Promised Land for others—places where they learn, grow and thrive. Sending a child to boarding school does not in itself constitute neglect. I’ve actually seen it solidify and deepen family relationships.)
Sadly, the form of neglect I’m addressing doesn’t require geographical distance to exist. For some of my students who live at home, the sense of rejection and replacement is just as strong. Parents who might be there in body, but are absent in every way that matters. Parents who travel too much to be involved. Parents whose focus is on the strangers they’re saving to the detriment of the children they brought into the world. If I were to question these families about their priorities and the consequences on their kids, they’d be able to articulate perfectly valid-sounding reasoning about the importance of God’s work and His ability to protect their children. But…can God truly be pleased with a ministry that injures the young souls Jesus held so dear?
Don’t get me wrong, I could give you a long list of missionary families who have done it right—who have invested their lives in ministry without sacrificing their children to the cause. Missionaries whose kids have grown up never doubting for a moment that their parents loved them and would drop everything in an instant to come to their rescue. These are the MKs who have displayed an increased capacity to love others, a greater stability, a deeper joy and a more hopeful outlook on life.
In cases like the one mentioned above, the parents may have had no idea of the way their absence (physical and emotional) was perceived. They may even have led scores of unbelievers to Christ while losing touch with the children He gave them to rear and protect. Now in his adult years, their son has rejected anything related to Christianity, and his anger and bitterness are still a nearly palpable driving force. Faith and ministry robbed him of a family, after all. “It’s all God’s fault…” I think the devil revels in taking something good, like evangelistic enthusiasm, and turning it into something so sadly destructive.
What can parents do to avoid even the appearance of neglect? Some of the steps are universal:
- Verbalize repeatedly that caring for your children is your life’s highest responsibility…then prove it.
- Make the effort to spend frequent, undistracted time with your children.
- Even if being there for the big moments of their lives requires financial sacrifice or missing out on other events, do so with joy. Let them see how much it means to you to spend time with them. Convince them that you’d rather be watching them play soccer or singing in a concert than home making a casserole for your church’s potluck. They don’t want to come in second to Turkey Divan!
- Include them in your ministry, as much as they want to be, so they don’t perceive a chasm between being missionaries and being parents.
- Communicate intentionally, personally and faithfully—avoid “quick” phone calls between pressing ministry engagements if your kids live away from you. Make the time for real conversations.
- Be there (physically and in very other way) for the big transitions in their lives—walk alongside them, help them.
- Care for the practical aspects of their lives too—even if they’re on another continent for college. Make sure they have what they need for classes, dorm living, haircuts, outings… When you’re there for their first week of college (be there—they’ll seldom need you more), teach them to look for a job so they can begin to meet some of their needs themselves.
- Near or far, commit to being everything God wants a mother and father to be—even though your ministry may be urgent and all-consuming.
- Show God to your children through the way you love them, so they have no reason to believe that He wishes them harm.
- Here’s the tough one—and I’ve seen seasoned missionaries balk at the suggestion: Make sure your children know that you’d even be willing to give up the ministry if that were in their best interest.
You may assume all of the above is clear to your children. Please don’t. If MKs are good at anything, it’s putting on a brave face and “bucking up” when they’re hurt or confused. Sometimes neglect is unintentional, but it still feels very real to sensitive young souls.
I cannot end without praising families like the Crooks’s (Italy), the Youngs (Germany) and the Krauses (Mali) who, among many others, have demonstrated that distance and crazy-busy lives need not stand in the way of hands-on, loving, engaged parenting. Their children may never fully understand the gift they’ve been given in their parents’ focused and unmistakable love, but they’ll grow up stronger and surer because of it.
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